Bounty Killer is one of the most popular and controversial dancehall singers in contemporary popular music. His songs, a conflicting mix of belligerent and conciliatory lyrics, give him a depth and texture rarely found in other artists.
Much of Bounty Killer’s lyrical content is shaped by his poor and violent upbringing. He was born Rodney Basil Price in poverty, one of nine children. In his early childhood his mother moved the family to a literal dump in Kingston, the capital and largest city in Jamaica. Inspired by the reggae and dancehall music (a dance-oriented form of reggae) he heard in the neighborhood, Price began to sing, or DJ, as it is called in reggae and dancehall, at the age of nine. His skills won him a string of local talent competitions. When his family moved to another housing community, two events altered the trajectory of his career. First, his talent show record enabled him to perform at dances with his idol, the dancehall artist Shabba Ranks. Second, at the age of twelve he was caught in the cross-fire of a politically charged gunfight and was shot. Spurred to exact vengeance against his assailants, Price adopted the name Bounty Hunter.
Bounty Hunter sought to achieve acclaim on the scale of Shabba Ranks and asked the veteran artist King Jammy for a “riddim,” or a reggae beat, for use in a song. Bounty Hunter recorded “Coppershot.” The lyrics chronicle his brutal past, and King Jammy thought it too stark for release. Nevertheless, King Jammy’s brother Uncle T noticed the power of the song and aided its release to a welcoming audience, first in Jamaica and then in Europe and the United States. Largely based on his graphic verses, fans began to call Bounty Hunter by a new name: Bounty Killer.
Bounty Killer’s subsequent songs were just as explicit, as evidenced in titles like “New Gun” and “Gun Thirsty.” His rivalry with the more commercially successful dance-hall artist Beenie Man enabled him to increase his international profile. The feud mirrored that of rap artists Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Bounty Killer and Beenie Man soon realized that their song feud could easily devolve into physical combat and signed a peace treaty in 1996, the same year in which Tupac Shakur was murdered.
Bounty Killer made some strategically prudent moves. He started a production company and record label. His breakout album, My Xperience (1996), features collaborations with big-name hip-hop artists the Fugees, Busta Rhymes, and Wu-Tang Clan, assuring him of a wide audience. Nevertheless, the biggest hit on the album, with his fellow Jamaican Barrington Levy, is a pure dancehall concoction. The juxtaposition of Bounty Killer’s gruff voice and the sing-songy Levy on “Living Dangerously” made the track a nightclub staple. The album topped the reggae charts for half the year and spent two months at number one on the Billboard R&B albums chart.
Consistently solid albums followed, although many of his singles were banished from Jamaican radio, probably because of their political content. For example, his song “Down in the Ghetto” questions the origins of destructive forces in the community and implies a government conspiracy: “Who give the guns, who give the crack / Noone to take the blame.” The Jamaican politician/activist Edward Seaga even wanted to use Bounty Killer’s song “Fed Up,” from My Xperience, in his election campaign, but Bounty Killer refused. Jamaican communities lauded Bounty Killer for his benefit concerts to aid disadvantaged children, and he earned the moniker “The Poor People’s Governor.”
In the early 2000s, Bounty Killer’s career hit new zeniths. His album Ghetto Dictionary: The Mystery (2002) received a 2003 Best Reggae Album Grammy nomination but lost to Jamaican E.T, helmed by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley’s producer. Bounty Killer managed a high-profile collaboration with the multiplatinum pop-ska band No Doubt on the title track to their Grammy award-winning album Hey Baby (2002).
Bounty Killer’s success suggests new heights to come. He has surmounted political opposition and earned respect from disenfranchised people, all while steadily augmenting his audience.
Roots, Reality, and Culture (VP, 1994); Face to Face (VP, 1994); Down in the Ghetto (VP, 1995); No Argument (Greensleeves, 1996); My Xperience (VP, 1996); Ghetto Gramma (Greensleeves, 1997); Next Millennium (TVT, 1998); The 5th Element (TVT, 1999); Ghetto Dictionary: The Art of War (VP, 2002); Ghetto Dictionary: The Mystery (VP, 2002).